Las Vegas Sun

June 14, 2024

Donna’s House offers safe haven

A safe child exchange and visitation center described as a landmark program in Las Vegas is up and running.

On Thursday, "Donna's House" was officially opened as a neutral residential site where parents involved in contentious custody cases can exchange their children without fear of violence or acrimony. Donna's House staff also will oversee court-ordered supervised visitation at a nominal cost.

Donna's House is named for Donna Hernandez, a Family Court clerk who was murdered by her ex-husband, Fernando Hernandez, on Oct. 6, 1999, in front of the couple's then 3-year-old daughter. Fernando was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Prior to her death, Donna had obtained several protection orders against Fernando because of domestic violence. She had unsuccessfully fought in Family Court to prevent him from sharing custody of their daughter.

At Thursday's dedication ceremony, Family Court Judge Dianne Steel added a personal note about the case.

"I was the judge involved in Donna's divorce proceedings. I was the judge overseeing the post-divorce," she said, her voice quivering. "The events of Oct. 6, 1999, affect me now, affected me then, and will always affect me."

Breaking into tears, she added: "Every judge who has had a tragedy occur on his watch doesn't like it, doesn't know how to stop it ... But we can get behind efforts to see that this doesn't happen again."

Donna's mother, Annie Griego, was sitting nearby. When Steel finished speaking, Griego walked over to her and embraced her. She then held her and Steel's hands up in a salute.

Griego said that for several years she was upset with Steel for not listening to or believing Donna about how violent Fernando was.

"It's now time to forgive, and go forward," she said, adding that Donna's House is a "wonderful tribute" to her daughter.

Steel described the center at 2595 S. Torrey Pines Drive as a landmark program.

"We recognize as judges that there must be some way to exchange a child in a safe manner between parents who have conflicts," she said. "We are tired of having to tell parents to exchange their children at a 7-Eleven or police substation."

Most of the cases to be referred by Family Court to Donna's House for visitation and exchanges will involve domestic violence. Funded by Family Court and a grant under the Violence Against Women Act, the pilot project will be run by Palo Verde Child and Family Services.

The trained staff includes security. One of the key aspects of Donna's House is that warring parents will not see each other when exchanging their children for visitation so children will not witness verbal or physical altercations between their parents.

At the outset, Donna's House will accommodate 76 exchanges and visitations per week. The facility will be open 22 hours a week -- Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings; Saturday and Sunday and all holidays. Those are the times visitation exchanges generally take place. Nominal fees of $5 will be charged. Parents who are late picking up their children will be assessed an additional fee.

The program ensures the safe exchange of children by asking the noncustodial parent to be 15 minutes early. He/she is taken to a locked room to wait for the custodial parent to drop off the child. Fifteen minutes after that parent leaves, the other can leave with the child. The goal is to prevent one parent from following the other.

"We want to prevent contact between parents in conflict," Dr. Laura Birholtz of Palo Verde Child and Family Services said.

The opening of Donna's House, scheduled for last Nov. 1, was delayed to this month because of snags in obtaining the necessary special-use permits.

On Thursday, several advocates and court officials praised Steel and Assistant Court Administrator Christina Chandler as the "driving forces" behind Donna's House. They have been working on the project for more than a year. One court official noted that Chandler "just wouldn't let this die."

Metro Police also supported the project because officers often respond to calls of domestic disputes involving custody that they are not equipped to resolve.

According to Chandler, Donna's House is a reminder that Donna Hernandez's tragic death "was neither the first nor last time a child will be exposed to or harmed by the conflicts and violence between parents."

A large portrait of Donna Hernandez hugging her daughter hangs in the main room of the center -- a haunting reminder of the personal effects of domestic violence. "We want her face to shine on everyone who comes into this facility," Steel said.